Monday, March 10, 2014

Steven Levingston's "Little Demon in the City of Light"

Steven Levingston is the nonfiction editor of The Washington Post. He also writes books and plays and does some book reviewing.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Little Demon in the City of Light: A True Story of Murder and Mesmerism in Belle Epoque Paris, and reported the following:
On page 99 in Little Demon we bump up against Sigmund Freud as a young medical student strolling the streets of Paris in the 1880s, gathering his perceptions of the French. “I don’t think they know the meaning of shame or fear,” he wrote home. “The women no less than the men crowd around nudities as much as they do round corpses in the Morgue or ghastly posters in the streets announcing a new novel.” Though Freud was an odd, cocaine-dependent neurotic at the time, he captured the French sensibility and, in that single description, revealed a quality of the entire book. Little Demon sets out to tell not just a murder story but a tale that grows out of the very terrain of Paris in the Belle Epoque. The book shows the French much as Freud characterized them. Paris in the 1880s and 90s was a landscape of men in top hats and monocles, women in outrageous hats, and carefree strolls along the boulevards. To the outside world the city floated on a champagne bubble. “It is we,” declared a French journalist, “who have infected the world with gaiety, this brightness.” But Paris also was a troubled place. Since the Prussians humiliated France on the battlefield in 1870, the country slept fitfully, tossing and turning over a grim question: Was French glory a thing of the past? The indignity of defeat lingered. The scars were written on the drunks in the alleyways, the blank-eyed syphilitics in the insanity wards, and the anxious faces of the politicians. And Freud’s point about Parisian immodesty and decadence was well-taken. The French were connoisseurs of sex, and lovemaking was an art. Just listen to the famous author Alphonse Daudet exulting over the “glorious frenzy” of sex “with a woman who is naked, a woman one rolls on top of and covers with kisses: copulation as practiced by artists, men of passion, men who really love women.” It was enough to make Sigmund Freud blush.
Learn more about the book and author at Steven Levingston's website.

--Marshal Zeringue